Newsweek recently carried an article by Bjorn Lomborg entitled “A Roadmap for the Planet.” His basic thesis, by now familiar to all, is that “exaggerated environmental worries—and the willingness of so many to believe them—could ultimately prevent us from finding smarter ways to actually help our planet and ensure the health of the environment for future generations.” This is because we have successfully dealt with similar issues before. “Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy.”
According to Lomborg, we have for generations “consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation.” The fact is that “would-be catastrophes have regularly been pushed aside throughout human history, and so often because of innovation and technological development. We never just continue to do the same old thing. We innovate and avoid the anticipated problems.”
“Today, some of the most polluted places in the world are the megacities of the developing world, such as Beijing, New Delhi, and Mexico City. But remember what happened in developed countries. Over a period of several hundred years, increasing incomes were matched by increasing pollution. In the 1930s and 1940s, London was more polluted than Beijing, New Delhi, or Mexico City are today.
Eventually, with increased affluence, developed countries gradually were better able to afford a cleaner environment.”
This is a key argument in the article. The point is highlighted with contrasting pictures of clear skies over London compared to very smoggy looking shot of Shanghai.
He closes with the complaint that we are taking the wrong approach.
“… instead of first making sure that everybody is better off and more resilient, our response to global warming has been to try to cut back carbon emissions too soon. In reality, this means reining in growth and making do with less than we could have otherwise.
But this approach flies in the face of history. The way we have made progress against disease, malnutrition, and environmental degradation in the past is by growing, by discovering, and by innovating.”
This is classic Lomborg. People are overstating the problem, regulation won’t work, innovation will save us, sans any particular economic, policy or legislative measures to incentivise that innovation.
But what is most intriguing about the article is the staggering own goal which Lomborg scores by using the example of London’s air quality.
As anyone who has read any environmental history knows (and anyone who has access to the internet can find out in 2 minutes flat), London struggled for decades to rein in its smog problem through weak and ineffectual legislation. Then, in 1952, at least four thousand people died from 5 days of intense pollution in the city known as the Great Smog (recent research estimates 12,000). Around 100,000 people were affected with respiratory illnesses. The government, which was exporting low sulphur coal and burning high sulphur coal at home to maximise revenues, initially resisted any law change, and invented an influenza epidemic to explain the smog deaths.
Eventually, in 1956 a Clean Air Act was passed which, by banning emissions of “smoke” effectively prevented the use of coal for domestic heating in the city. Yes, you heard that right. No cap and trade, offsets, grandfathering, soft taxes or any other such nonsense. And you can be sure that there were thousands of poor people affected, who had aspirations for a better life, and wanted to go on burning coal. But the community realised that they faced an ongoing environmental catastrophe and decline of the city if they did not act decisively. As the National Society for Clean Air explains, the smog marked “the dividing line between the general acceptance of air pollution as a natural consequence of industrial development, and the understanding that progress without pollution control is no progress at all.”
So contrary to Lomborg’s thesis, the real innovation, and a large part of the reason why the vibrant city of London enjoys clean air today, was the stringent regulation of emissions. We can agree with Lomborg that London’s example is one that Shanghai should emulate, just not in the way he thinks.
We can also learn from the London example that:
- We should not wait for environmental catastrophe is upon us before acting.
- Weak regulations do not work.
- Vested economic interests will resist stronger regulation, and may even mislead to obscure their real agenda.
- But strong regulation works, and brings greater prosperity for all.